Monday, September 19, 2011

Ghost in the Darkness

There is a wind out on the meadow. It whistles through the bones of a bird, hollow like drinking straws, a pneumatic system, bellows pumping air that keeps the frame bloated and aloft. It sings. Then a gust carries the bird away. I look at my notepad. I had something to write down but I lost it.
It is a cloudy, low sky. Wind and water are fundamentally clear, but you add smoke or clay or condensation and they each become visible. It's like putting a radio collar on a suspect bear or radioactive dye in the bloodstream. The suspended substance gives it a form and you can track it across a matrix. But it's still not wind or water.
Sometimes it doesn't matter. The bear circles a sheep herd in the foothills at night and you can watch it move in and out of the herd carrying off one course of a meal after another, a feast, a banquet of mutton - all in the comfort of a climate controlled office in the northern Rocky Mountains. I think about that office and wonder what heat used to feel like.
I want to tie a rope to the bird. Before the taming of the electric current, a sheep herder would have to recognize the shape and space and color of the eyes in the firelight. Two red dots four inches apart. Two blue dots that don't move. Two green ones that move up and down. Quick. Which one is the sheep. Which one is the bear. Which is the reflection of the moon. Which one is the camp cook. A shot into the dark could mean hot bear steaks tonight or prison meals for life. It is at this point in time that the herder, his face raining sweat and eyes wide like egg whites, conceived the idea of radio telemetry and was about to broadcast it to his two friends staring into the woods, but, alas, was unable to expound due an unfortunate combination of poor night vision, wind, rain, and simple miscalculation. Three bears, not one. This is what we call circumstances beyond one's control. Too bad. Under the same circumstances the bears easily recognized the well-fed sheep herders.
The vast majority of humans were rural dwellers in centuries gone by; some 95% in the United States in the 1790's. They were villagers with stone or wood or animal skin dwellings and few dozen family units and surrounding fields with livestock and beyond it, a vast wilderness. This was an unknown wilderness, really, known no more than the accidental provisions that spilled out from it into the village: the occasional elk, the flock of grouse overhead, the swarm of bees, the creek that passed between the fields. Many villages were surrounded by barricades of pointed stakes or stone walls and armed men posted in watchtowers. This wilderness entered by invitation only. At night, when something moved in the darkness the men would fire guns, shoot arrows, toss spears, throw rocks...even their own children. At daybreak they would venture out into the bush and find blood-soaked sand and drag marks. A wounded or dead animal was carried away by something much, much larger. The talk would spread and convolute and quickly the animals would become unimaginably large. Great, horned beasts with claws and toothed jaws that ate entire mountains and breathed fire and ate women and children by the thousands.
Today, it's the other way around. The vast majority of humans are urban dwellers; some 75% in the United States live in cities. These are still walled cities, with stone fortresses and watchtowers with heavily armed men. But the wilderness is proportionately smaller: quaint, little fenced rectangles, like schoolyards, with a sharp, razor-tipped line between the civilized and wilderness lands that can be seen from 800 miles in space. And the forest that was never known is now simply unidentifiable: a scrubby, worm-eaten corpse with tilting trees, pock marked stumps, inbred wildlife, sunken aquifers, tailing piles, herds of feral cats, toxic stains, windblown plastic, severed corridors, and an understory of wiry invaders and genetically-modified mysteries that coil around the last remnants of the original forest.
There is a rustling in the woods tonight. Quickly, the menfolk grab their guns and fire into the darkness. Guns on turrets with fifty caliber shells and thousand-pound bombs with jellied gasoline and dioxin and benzene and plutonium. The smoke drifts back into the city and burns the eyes. An air-quality alert goes out. In the morning the men venture into the bush and find the remains of something unrecognizable; tufts of fir, or is it feathers. Maybe it's a mammal. Probably a bird. Who knows. Who knew. Who would ever know.
I suspect that the animal probably recognized us before it vanished. It's probably true: Something is here that is larger than we can imagine, something monstrous, a great, horned beast with claws and toothed jaws that eats entire mountains and breathes fire and eats men and women and children and living things by the thousands.

Friday, September 16, 2011


As a man walks away from you he becomes smaller than your outstretched hand. If you look around, there are a lot of things that were very big that have become small for one reason or another. Like Y2K. Atom-bomb shelters. Prohibition. Fur trade. Knee screws. So it is a little unsettling to think that I am shrinking in the distance myself, that is, according to people who see me getting smaller and had the notion to tell me before I disappeared altogether, sort of like the last, desperate protestation of love between a man and a woman at a train station in the few seconds before the conductor says "all aboard". The hands break apart and the fingers reach out to touch but the distance grows until the hand disappears and all that remains is the plume of coal smoke on the horizon.
You wait long enough and the memory disappears too.
It can feel like fatality, this departure, or maybe it's the other way around. The difference is the reason for the disappearance. When one disappears without warning, as might happen when abducted by anthropologists or duped at a card game into taking a monastic vow of silence or when becoming too absorbed in doing the math in one's head or when falling into severe and prolonged existentialism, it feels the same. I had a friend who disappeared that way once. I saw her reflection in a storefront window and I turned to look at her and a bus passed between us and she was gone. I think that is what happened. Her name escapes me. She had blonde, no red hair.
The other day, while in search of vanishing species on the north central grasslands, I came across a cemetery. It was a quaint prairie cemetery guarded by wrought iron fences on the south and a depression-era windbreak of Siberian elm and Black Hills spruce on the north, east. In the European custom, the graves all lay feet facing east, luxury suites with a fabulous view of the early morning sky to the east, so it is said. The oldest graves had fallen into disrepair, no flowers to be seen, the names and dates were weathered, and many were toppled. Someone had taken the time to recast the names on little iron plates staked in the grass, but that person did their work decades ago and, I suppose, they lay amongst the headstones somewhere, rubbing elbows with old friends. Today, their names escape us, faint etchings mottled with lichen and moss.
As I walked away, I turned to look and it got smaller and smaller until it disappeared from view. Now I can't even remember where the place was.
So ends another summer. Oak savannas, black ash swamps, sagebrush and badlands, lodgepole pine and Douglas fir. Ponderosa pine, thick red trunks and deep, almost black boughs. Sturdy grasses and sagebrush so tall that it imagines itself a tree, so long as it doesn't get near one, which isn't likely, seeing that most trees in North Dakota are in museums. And sandstone caprocks huddled over strata like a child over a cereal bowl; don't touch what's underneath. And we wouldn't for a long time.
Well, the long time came to an end. We exited the age of Enlightenment, enthralled with our own wisdom and might, and took the new found liberty and knowledge and created the Industrial Age, which continues to this day. Now some may say, No, it ended when we entered the Technological Age or the Information Age or the New Age or the Styrofoam Age or the Corn Syrup Age or Sectional Couch Age or whatever it is now, but half the globe has yet to see an industry in their backyard yet. Untapped resources and new markets, my boy. This has to change and change it will.
Sometimes we go to the store and the sign says, "New and Improved", and we put it in the washing machine and the clothes still come out with grass stains and ring-around-the-collar and the mothers look cross and the kids look downcast. All that was new and improved was the lettering on the box, those words New and Improved. So it is with the Industrial Age: We have taken the old machinery from the Dark Ages, the knee screw, the iron collar, the rack, the branks, the garotte, and put a label "New and Improved" and hawked it to nuclear families around the western world. Only this time, we wouldn't dare use them on the heretical masses; they learned to read and write. So we applied them to inanimate objects, ones that can't complain or riot or call lawyers or write great declarations of inanimate object rights. And we applied them to unintelligent brutes, from the great apes on down to lobsters.
As I leave, I can see the hills recede from view, hills brushed red with tussocks of little bluestem and moist valleys of ash and elm and wild plum, with flocks of sharptail grouse bursting from buffaloberry thickets and nighthawks sweeping the skies in the late evening and a luscious full moon, tomato-red from forest fires to the west. I am becoming a dot on the horizon, a distant memory, someday forgotten altogether, like the folks in the prairie cemetery. But today, the long time has come: The caprocks and soil mantle and grassland carpet are being pulled away by medieval machines, the modern-day Brodequin, Strappado, Judas Cradle, Heretic's Fork, and Iron Maiden. The riches are exposed and angry, desperate, confused, trembling crowds gather and plunder them. They light fires to burn what remains.
As I disappear, I look back and I see nothing. It occurs to me that we both disappear at the same time and someday, there will be nobody left to remember a thing.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Circle of Death

There is a loud train outside of my window. I suppose it is filled with hot, steaming coal from some strip mine in Wyoming, but it is too dark to tell right now. It blends into the night. The thing thunders by, the cabin shakes, and it blows its horn. Why blow the horn here? Maybe fifty years ago, when people lived in this town, working at the sawmill, but today, I think the only people left are buried behind a church. The ground behind the church shakes but nobody knows a thing.
As always, I am a moment away from joining in their silent vigil. In fact, sitting here, I am living in a space not much bigger than a coffin. And I don't know much more than they do. So the line between us grows thinner. At least my space has a window, although it is barely large enough to squeeze through. This is an advantage when the thing squeezing through is trying to get into the vehicle rather than out.
A fly fisherman three miles upstream bumped into a grizzly.
This is recreational vehicle life. I think I understand, as I see seventy year old men around me in white knee socks and baggy shorts and feed hats with military slogans and toy poodles and stories about the glories of war. I have no such stories, but being here, I make up stories about life on the open range. The blizzard of '49 that swallowed up our town and we had to dig a tunnel all the way to Texas to find daylight. Branding cattle in a pouring rainstorm with two broken arms, a case of typhoid, all the while fighting off eight wolves and seven rustlers. Mom was too busy tending the milk cows to give birth so the kids all borned themselves. Putting water in the Bank because it was the only valuable thing we had. Going without air for a summer because dad said so, besides, it was too thick to breathe it anyhow. Times were tough but we rode it out. Can't say that for peoples nowadays.
Anyhow, there are fires in the mountains tonight. Dry lightning they call it. Where the storm doesn't send rain, it sends lightning. It's virgo, where the rain evaporates before it reaches the ground. So the lightning hits an old dry log in the pine forest. Pine, just a form of hard gasoline, if you ask me. Then the log smoulders for a day or a week. And then one hot, dry day, the humidity drops as the temperature goes up and at 1:43 in the afternoon, the log bursts into flames. The trees above it catch some of the fire and carry it into the canopy and it races across the treetops like a long haired sunburned surfer. A child of the stylized Sun seen in children's picture books.
The smoke today looked like the wall cloud of a thunderstorm. But it wasn't blue or black, it was orange, brown, like dust; it could have been mistaken as dust by a homesteader. All day long the smell of rich roasted pine was in the air, sweet, like pipe tobacco, and at this intensity, as alluring as fresh coffee grounds. Maybe it is nicotene in the air. Maybe it is instinctive hunger, the sense that there is a porterhouse steak somewhere out there on the spit. The legend is that buffalo would follow the smoke in the air to find, after a few weeks of walking, fresh green grass where the fire had been.
The moon is red, filtered through the combustibles of a million Douglas fir and lodgepole pine and ponderosa pine. Too quickly they died, if they had only waited a few eons, they might have turned up in a coal mine.
The train sounds a bell as it crosses the highway. The horn fades in the distance, the horn descending in pitch as the sound waves stretch out. Like firewood, coal heats us twice: Once when it is burned for fuel, twice when it burns the planet.